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Book Review – Drift by Rachel Maddow

Synopsis:  “One of my favorite ideas is, never to keep an unnecessary soldier,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1792. Neither Jefferson nor the other Founders could ever have envisioned the modern national security state, with its tens of thousands of “privateers”; its bloated Department of Homeland Security; its rusting nuclear weapons, ill-maintained and difficult to dismantle; and its strange fascination with an unproven counterinsurgency doctrine.

Written with bracing wit and intelligence, Rachel Maddow‘s Drift argues that we’ve drifted away from America‘s original ideals and become a nation weirdly at peace with perpetual war, with all the financial and human costs that entails. To understand how we’ve arrived at such a dangerous place, Maddow takes us from the Vietnam War to today’s war in Afghanistan, along the way exploring the disturbing rise of executive authority, the gradual outsourcing of our war-making capabilities to private companies, the plummeting percentage of American families whose children fight our constant wars for us, and even the changing fortunes of G.I. Joe. She offers up a fresh, unsparing appraisal of Reagan’s radical presidency. Ultimately, she shows us just how much we stand to lose by allowing the priorities of the national security state to overpower our political discourse.

First Line:  “One of my favorite ideas is, never to keep an unnecessary soldier,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1792.

Random Quote:  Madison, Hamilton, and their fellow framers were building structural barriers against what they saw as the darker aspects of human nature.  The lures to war – personal hatreds, political glory, material spoils, and the simple atavistic enthusiasm for violence – might be too enticing for one man to resist, and might be too easy to promote “by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory,” as a later congressman, Abraham Lincoln, put it, “that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood – that serpent’s eye that charms to destroy.”  Madison wrote in his notes during the constitutional debates that Virginia delegate George Mason “was for clogging rather than facilitating war; but for facilitating peace.”

Review:  Bias up-front:  I’m a progressive (although a very pragmatic one) and I love Rachel Maddow – not just for her intelligence and curiousity, but also for the fact that she is exactly who she is with a limited number of concessions to “image.”  It’s just really refreshing.  Drift is also biased in a progressive way, but I expected that going in and it doesn’t weaken the book nor its argument.  I don’t agree with everything, but I enjoyed following her thesis.

Founding Fathers (image source)

Ms. Maddow isn’t kind to any of our presidents, neither Republican nor Democrat catch a break from her.  Instead, she unravels the threads that have led to our country being in a perpetual state of war whose media coverage is so limited that none of us are even aware it’s going on.  War in the past was always something that the whole country was involved in – it was designed to be that way, sacrifice required from all (think WWII and the Victory Gardens).  As we’ve gotten more and more technological, war has changed, we’re removed from it and its consequences.  Having learned the lesson from allowing full press action to combat in Vietnam, we no longer see raw footage of fighting on the news in quite the same way.  During the GW era, we didn’t even see footage of the coffins being delivered back to American soil.  We’ve distanced ourselves and have pretended none of it’s really going on.  I won’t start on how we treat our veterans (although we haven’t really done a great job ever of helping them, see also Herbert Hoover).

Ms. Maddow develops her thesis by demonstrating at every step of the way how Americans, both in government and out, have come to the current state of affairs.  There are very few heroes, although General Colin Powell is certainly one.  Oddly the big lightbulb for me in reading this book is that we’ve pretended that the Cold War is still happily going along.  We didn’t invest any of the money not spent back into our infrastructure and economy, instead we found other (military) ways to spend it.  Basically, the Cold War never ended – the kindest thing to say about it is that it transitioned.

Whichever side of the political fence you’re on, Drift is well-written, entertaining, and will give you a great deal to think about.  Highly recommended.

FTC Disclosure:  Copy obtained from NetGalley for review

Publishing Information:  Random House – March 27, 2012


Reading Challenges:  Non-fiction/Non-memoir

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